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Nebraska judge denies access to burial records

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  1. Freedom of Information
District Judge Terri Harder has barred the release of records identifying almost 1,000 people buried in the Hastings Regional Center…

District Judge Terri Harder has barred the release of records identifying almost 1,000 people buried in the Hastings Regional Center cemetery from 1909 to 1959. The Adams County Historical Society filed suit last summer asking for the names to be made available to the public.

Harder’s ruling upholds the center’s policy that all documents, including the burial records, are labeled "confidential information" and are closed to the public.

Judge Harder cited the 1996 federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, saying the law established protection for “individually identifiable health information” based on any physical or mental health condition. 

“If the requested records were released, the individuals buried would be named," Harder wrote, adding: "Release of these records would reveal that the individual was institutionalized for a mental illness or for a condition serious enough to require institutionalization.”

Jeanne Atkinson of the Department of Health and Human Services said handing out a list of the names, as the society requested, would be a violation of patient confidentiality.  The information may be obtained by a death certificate or through a court order.

Catherine Renschler, the historical society’s executive director, counters that not all of the unmarked graves have death certificates and the only other way to receive the information is through a court order, which could cost over $1,000.  She added that the requests are not about medical issues but specifically for the names and death dates of those buried in the unmarked graves.

Thomas Burke, an attorney representing the historical society, says he plans to appeal the ruling within 30 days.